Erin O’Toole of Oterra

Erin O’Toole of Oterra

Making Durable Chalk Bags for the Rock-climbing Community

Erin O’Toole at Clifford Park in Biddeford.

Chalk bags are a must-have for any serious rock climber. The small satchels are clipped onto a belt and carry loose chalk. The climber dips their hands into the bag and the chalk absorbs sweat and gives them better grip.

Erin O’Toole, 35, of Oterra Designs creates hand-crafted chalk bags that are rugged and built to last, but are also beautiful. She started the business in January, but she’s been sewing chalk bags since she became an avid climber, about eight years ago.

“I started making chalk bags as gifts for friends, and every time I made one, someone would ask, ‘Where can I get one,” she said. Those bags that she made many years ago—her friends are still using them. “They’ve been product tested,” she said with a laugh.

Erin knows how to make a good product. She is an avid sewer, and she worked for years at Hyperlight Mountain Gear in Biddeford, starting as a production stitcher and working her way up to senior product designer and developer. “I think your gear should always work and be functional, but it should also be expressive,” she said. “I know how to make good quality gear and I also like to be creative.”

She also knows what climbers need. O’Toole typically likes to get out to the local rock gym about four times a week and climb outside once a week. Her favorite places include Cathedral Ledge in Bartlett, New Hampshire, and Shagg Crag in Woodstock.  She said she loves the movement and the mind-body connection in climbing. “It’s like you’re dancing on the rock,” she said.

While Erin enjoys other activities, like running, it’s climbing that helps clear her mind and keep it focused. “When I’m on the rock, I’m not thinking about anything else,” she said.

Through climbing, she’s learned to set goals and celebrate victories, and also to accept that some failure is inevitable.  Climbing is a calculated risk, she said, and climbers have to be smart, prepared, and willing to walk away if a situation or place appears too risky.

Erin has made many friends through climbing and has found the climbing community to be supportive and close-knit. “You can’t just walk off the street and jump on a rock. You need someone with experience to show you the ropes, literally,” she said.

Working from Biddeford, Erin makes all the chalk bags and chalk buckets herself. “I have a little shop in an extra room in my home. I already feel like I’ve outgrown it,” she said. Her signature design, which she has created in a variety of colors, is “moonrise,” portraying a mountain against a moon backdrop. Erin was born on a full-moon night and has always felt a connection with the moon.

She also makes custom designs. One time, a customer reached out to Erin to make a gift for a loved one who had always carried a cute stuffed cat in their climbing bag. The bag was stolen, and along with it the stuffed animal, and Erin designed a bag with a picture of a cat to replace the bag that was stolen.

The bags are remarkably light weight, made of a waterproof canvas, with a base of sail cloth. They are lined inside with plush fleece, and the mouth of the bag has a hard rim, so the bag stays open and the chalk is easily accessible. The bag closes with a drawstring that cinches smoothly even when covered with chalk. “There are a lot of details that make this stand out from the average-joe chalk bag,” she said.

The name of the business, Oterra, is a play on Erin’s last name and translates from Latin to “of the earth.”  She sources recycled materials whenever possible, never uses single-use plastic in packaging, and makes tags from cut-up paper bags.

While initially interest in Erin’s products came from word of mouth, she is now growing her customer base through the internet, thanks to a strong presence on Instagram and Facebook. She found when the pandemic hit, many people were at home and online. Though they may not have been going to the rock gym or going out with friends to climb outdoors, they were still shopping for gear and supporting small businesses. Oterra Designs has customers from all over the country, including Texas, Missouri, Colorado.

Erin’s products can also be found at Tera Kaia, a shop in Bishop, California, a town that’s a known hiking and climbing destination. She also has face masks lined with athletic wicking fabric for sale at Salt Pump Climbing Company rock gym in Scarborough. She perfected her mask design when she, her mother, and her sister set out to make face masks for medical professionals, family, and friends. Through their effort, they’ve made nearly 1,000 face masks.

For more information about Oterra Designs or to look at products, go to .

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Liz Gotthelf

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